Mike DeCamp of La Belle Vie: Chef Chat, part 1

Long after formal fine dining was declared dead, Minneapolis's La Belle Vie continues to garner awards and recognition as the classiest restaurant in town. At the helm of the kitchen is soft-spoken, facial-hair-festooned tastemaker Mike DeCamp.  Sending out seasonal, delicately plated, and beautifully flavored dishes, he continues the Tim McKee tradition of serving excellent food while fostering young talent in the kitchen. 

Local Twitteratti follow him under the moniker youngchef2 for screen-licking images and insightful food opinions.

We got him to step away from the stove, set down his ever-present iPhone, and ask him a few questions about what he thinks Minneapolis has on Chicago diners, what one does with duck feet, and why a microwave is nothing to sneer at.

Where did you grow up?
Here, the western suburbs.  I went to Wayzata High School.

What kind of food makes you think of home?
Tater tot hotdish and apple pie.  Typical Midwestern stuff.

What was your first professional cooking job?
I started working at D'Amico Cucina in '97.

How did you get the job?
I had a friend of mine was working there.  He called me up and said I should apply.  He knew a bunch of people were leaving all at the same time.  I went in and applied.  A couple of months later I got the call.  It was just dumb luck that I got the job.

How do you feel about the shift in boundaries as people are following chefs on Twitter and every restaurant has a Facebook page?
It's fine.  There's nothing wrong with a boundary shift when going out for dinner.  Chefs are teachers, in a way.  We have a whole staff to show new things and hopefully to advance expectations.

We have a great kitchen here.  Everyone who has left, has left to be a sous chef.  We give them the tools to go on and run a kitchen.  It's a step up.

You were named a Tastemaker of 2011 by Minneapolis/St. Paul magazine.  Has that changed the way you present your public persona?
No, I don't think so.  It was really nice.  It was a cool list of people.  I like all those guys, but it hasn't changed anything.

Last week you tweeted a new picture of what you touted as a new tool in the kitchen.  What are you doing with a microwave?
It's for a foie gras appetizer that we're working on.  We were waiting for the rhubarb to come in, but now it's here.    We also have this pistachio cake that we put in an ISI can--you know what you use for whipped cream? We make the cake mix, put it in the ISI, put that in a mold, and then microwave it.

Oh, yeah.

Before La Belle Vie you were working in Chicago.  How would you compare the dining between Minneapolis and Chicago?
I'd say Chicago is second only to New York in terms of dining, and it's creeping closer, the tides are shifting.  You know, we share the same diners with only a handful of other restaurants.  Chicago can support a lot more [restaurants.]

Is there anything we have over Chicago?
I think our diners are a little more adventurous, believe it or not.  Plus we can drive. Traffic there is ridiculous.  I think we have a little more lard back in the kitchen.

How would you describe your cooking style?
Good food, I guess.  That's a hard question.  I cook the food here, which is always French/Mediterranean style.  If it was just me there would probably be some more crazy Asian things.  My style is to take chances where we can.

The menu changes all the time.  The tasting menus only last about once a month.  I'm always working on a couple of dishes--lots of messing around.

Like, we use Au Bon Canard foie gras, so I think we should use the rest of the birds.  So we have a duck breast on the menu and we use everything down to the feet for stocks. We also use Wild Acres chickens.  We use a lot of local, seasonal ingredients, but we aren't confined by it.  We use only the best ingredients.

Is there anything you're working on right now that you're really excited about?
We have a new sturgeon dish we're working on.  It's funny because I thought I didn't really care for sturgeon.  It's can be a bit of a strong flavor, but it's actually really nice.

We're doing some Parisian gnocchi, there's the new foie appetizer with rhubarb and pickled golden raisins.  I always have 20 to 30, well, no at least five to six dishes in development.

Our talk with Mike DeCamp continues tomorrow.

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